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Company Unions and the American Federation of Labor (AFL)

Company Unions and the A. F. of L.

by Louis Adamic, An Article in The Nation, July 18, 1934

ON Saturday, June 16–the day after the tragic fizzling-out of the militant rank-and-file strike movement in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, described in The Nation of two weeks ago–I went to a great steel workers’ picnic, held in a vast park beside a lake on the outskirts of Canton, Ohio. The picnic was organized by the Sixth District of the A. A., which includes the lodges in Canton, Youngstown, and the lesser steel towns thereabouts. Several thousand workers were there, mostly steel men with their families and girl friends. It was an all-day affair. Most of the folks had baskets of eats with them, and beer, soda pop, hot dogs, sandwiches, and ice cream were to be had at the big pavilion near the shooting-galleries.

There were all sorts of “doings.” Some of the younger people had a good time in and on the lake, diving, swimming, rowing. The children had their game, the merry-go-round, and other amusement devices. Some of the youngsters shouted hilariously and dashed about. Most of them, perhaps, looked healthy enough; not a few, however, were all too obviously working-class children growing up during a great economic crisis in dismal, musty dwellings along cinder-strewn streets and alley-ways. They were thin and old-looking, many of them wearing cheap eye-glasses; and malnutrition was the reason.

Women of all ages, wearing cheap clothes, sat on the grass in small groups, chatting, or just sitting in silence, keeping an eye on the kids. Some of them no doubt were younger than they looked. Lots of them had bad teeth; for years they had had no money for dental work. A few of them, here and there, talked among themselves of what had happened in Pittsburgh the day before. No strike, thank God! They were relieved by the sudden turn of events. They approved the decision of the delegates to the “strike” convention not to strike. They didn’t know (as I indicated in my last article) that that decision had been made for the delegates by President Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Perkins, General Johnson, William Green, and the old leaders of the A. A. Anyhow, they were glad, these steel workers’ wives, that the men were not going to strike right away. Times were so hard, and some of the men were just beginning to work again a little after years of almost steady idleness. And had a strike been started, some of the men would surely have been killed or wounded, for a number of the mills had armed for battle. What good would that have done?

“Of course,” I overheard a woman say, “it would be different if we, I mean the men, could pull a real strike, a real one–all the steel and iron and tin workers organized in one union–all quitting at the same time, then just staying home till they got what they wanted, and none of ’em going near the mills to be shot at. But as things are now, the workers are all split up. Here are these A. A. lodges of Young Boys and Old Boys that don’t get along: like cats and dogs. There’s the communist union. All kinds of unions, none of ’em pullin’ together. And then those company unions–”

“Those company unions,” put in a second woman, quickly, “they are bad; if it wasn’t for them–”

“They’re bad, all right,” said a third woman, listlessly, “but what can you do?”

The men, especially some of the younger men, the rank-and-filers, stood or sat about in small groups or around the tables in the pavilion, talking in snatches, smoking, munching sandwiches, drinking a bit, all palpably uncomfortable, bewildered, trying to appear indifferent. The shooting-galleries were not attracting many of them. I talked with a few. None really knew what had happened in Pittsburgh the previous day; what the labor movement or the NRA really was all about. I asked, “And what do you think of company unions?” “I’m against ’em,” was the typical and prompt reply. “How about the other steel workers you know; do they feel the same as you?” I asked. The usual answer was, “Everybody I know is against company unions.” The company unions were the only subject to which they reacted with spirit. In some instances the answer was a brusque, fierce laugh and a look which seemed to say, “You don’t think we’re saps enough to go for company unions do you?”

In the afternoon, the speeches. None of the rank-and-file leaders spoke. None had any experience in talking to large crowds, and over the radio besides, for the speeches were broadcast. Moreover, as I have said before, all the rank-and-filers were confused; what could they say? . . . I did not hear all the speeches. The first one I listened to was by a former A. F. of L. union official whose name I forget, now running for office in Canton; a thick, short man with a bull voice. He spoke of the grand and glorious American labor movement, its traditions, achievements: blah, blah . . . for ten minutes. The leaders of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, he said, were about to go to Washington, the capital of this great country, to be received there by the President of the United States, the great Mr. Roosevelt, in the White House: blah, blah . . . for another ten minutes. Our great President was to talk with these leaders of the A. A., “your leaders”; he was to consult with them, deal with them–“and, my friends, if the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, under the leadership of its tried and true, duly elected officers, is good enough for our great President, it’s good enough for you.”

Faint, scattered applause. No life in the audience.

Then the speaker embarked upon a long-winded attack on the company unions. Furiously and voluminously, he denounced the “steel barons,” the “autocratic Steel and Iron Institute,” for not recognizing the virtuous A. A. and for coercing the workers to join company unions. He described all the evils, from the workers’ point of view, of company unionism. And at nearly every other sentence the huge audience, now suddenly alive, vehemently applauded. Many of those who clapped probably realized that the speaker was a wind-bag, but passionately agreed with what he said about company unions.

The next speaker was Louis (Shorty) Leonard, secretary-treasurer of the A. A.; a former Socialist Party spell-binder gone “pure-and-simple” conservative; a wind-bag that at once nauseates and amuses one. He “explained” what had happened at the “strike” convention, eulogized William Green, that great, that sterling leader of American labor: blah, blah . . . praised Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest President since Lincoln: blah, blah . . . To all this there was little or no applause. The workers and their women just stood and listened apathetically.

“Shorty” then tore into the subject of company unions and, using very much the same words as the previous speaker, denounced the “autocratic, un-American steel barons,” the “ruthless, undemocratic, steel interests,” who refused to grant the request of organized labor in their industry for recognition of the union and collective bargaining; who defied the President and Congress of the United States, and, by various methods, forced–“forced, my friends”–their employees to join company unions, thus viciously, purposefully, retarding the normal growth of “legitimate” labor organizations. He kept this up for fifteen minutes or longer: blah, blah . . . repeating himself three or four times; and on the average of once a minute, if not oftener, he was interrupted by loud, spontaneous applause. It was evident that the workers really felt strongly about company unions, and that this feeling, which in the ensuing few days, while going around in the steel regions, I encountered elsewhere, was the result of bitter personal experiences or long, consistent anti-company union propaganda, or both; probably both.

Two days later, “Shorty” Leonard made essentially the same speech at the Hungry Club luncheon in Pittsburgh, attended largely by liberals and radicals of that city; and I was told that he and other A. F. of L. labor skates in the Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio steel regions had been talking to that effect every chance they had had for months–blaming company unions for the A. F. of L. organization’s failure to organize labor in a big way, while simultaneously, as I have shown last week, subtly retarding, frustrating unorganized labor in its NRA-inspired urge toward organization.

In brief, the A. F. of L. union skates are utilizing, exploiting the workers’ hate for company unions, stirring and intensifying it, focusing their thoughts and feelings on the company-union evil, exaggerating the power of company unionism, in order to keep them blind to the faults and shortcomings of the A. F. of L. organizations. This hate focused on the company unions makes the A. F. of L. group safe and free from criticism on the part of the workers, except the more intelligent ones, of course, who cannot be blinded so easily. Are the A. F. of L. unions weak and ineffective? Yes. But why? Because they have to contend with that awful enemy of organized labor, that great evil, the company unions. Hence, if the A. F. of L. unions are not what they should be, it is not their fault, out the company unions’, the bosses’, the Steel and Iron Institute’s. Also, by talking so furiously against company unions the A. F. of L. leaders make themselves appear friends of labor. Labor, ill-informed and bewildered, fearing and hating company unions, does not repudiate them. It allows itseIf to be “led” by them. This talking so furiously against company unions keeps labor from looking around for other leaders, from becoming a raw mass for a new movement, probably a radical, revolutionary movement, which, by and by, would displace “pure and simple” A. F. of L.

The Steel and Iron Institute lately released some figures pertaining to company unions. It claimed that over 90 per cent of steel, iron, and tin workers were in company unions or in favor of such organizations. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority, probably over 90 per cent, of workers in the steel regions that I visited in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, are fiercely anti-company union. There are company unions in nearly every town, but few workers who have succeeded in overcoming their fear of not belonging to them have joined them.

Until very recently the company unions were comparatively unimportant in the workers’ consideration. Then the A. F. of L. spellbinders, fellows like “Shorty” Leonard, commenced to harp on them and thus built them up in the workers’ minds to an extent that thousands of men joined them because they were afraid that if they did not they would–according to the A. F. of L. union leaders, whom they heard talk–lose their jobs or suffer some other calamity. Thus A. F. of L. fakers acted as organizers of company unions!

Consciously? Deliberately? Intentionally? Yes, in all probability, consciously, deliberately, intentionally. As I suggested in my first article, it certainly is not to the advantage of the old A. F. of L. oligarchy to have their unions become big organizations. How can they keep out the thousands of workers who want to come in? By impressing them with the importance and formidableness of company unionism, by scaring them, and driving them, fear-stricken, into the company unions.

Am I giving the A. F. of L. fakers credit for more brains than they are likely to have? I think not. They are desperate. They are fighting for their existence. And in such a situation, even a normally dull or stupid person or group is apt to develop great cunning and a high capacity for evil-doing.

Is it possible that there is, in this matter, conscious, direct cooperation between the Steel and Iron Institute’s agents charged with the promotion of the company-union idea and the leaders of the A. F. of L. unions in the steel industry? I, for one, certainly think it conceivable that there is. If there is not, it all works perfectly, anyhow.

Are President Roosevelt, Miss Perkins, General Johnson, Donald Richberg, and the other geniuses in the New Deal aware of this conscious or unconscious, direct or indirect cooperation between the company-union forces and the A. F. of L. fakers? If they are not, their spies in the labor field are not as good as I think they are.

Republished with permission from: Adamic, L. (1934, July 18). Company unions and the A. F. of L. The Nation, 139(3602), 67. Retrieved from

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Adamic, L. (1934, July 18). Company unions and the A. F. of L. The Nation, 139(3602), 67. Retrieved from


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